Bartlett Sher, Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown promote "The Bridges of Madison County" at The New 42nd Street Studios on Dec. 16, 2013. Credit: Walter McBride, Getty Images
“The Bridges of Madison County” started as a best-selling book by Robert James Waller in 1992, but many associate the title with the 1995 movie adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Now it’s back again as a musical, which is presently in previews on Broadway and opens Feb. 20. We spoke to some of the cast and creative team to learn why the intimate love story makes sense on the big stage.
Director Bartlett Sher (“South Pacific”)
How did you get involved with this musical?
I first got involved in it through [lead actress Kelli O’Hara]. I didn’t know the book; I’d never seen the movie. So, I got a hold of Marsha Norman’s script, which was the first thing that I’d read, and I really liked the script. I thought it was beautiful; I sort of vaguely knew the story. And then we did the workshop, which was just the first act, and the music was absolutely amazing. That whole thing together was pretty fun, and I’ve been with it ever since.
I think what I’m attracted to in the story is that its structure is really good for theater. And building it has been remarkably interesting, from a point of view of where I am in my own work. And it has a good secret in it, this sort of “What if?” … When we fall in love, we have a history of our falling in love. We’re with one person, but there may have been people in the past. It asks so many questions about: “Am I living as fully as I should?” And that’s interesting.
Were you already a fan of Jason Robert Brown’s music and lyrics?
I knew Jason’s work, yes. And I’d met him, but not in a really special [way]. But I always loved “The Last Five Years” and “Songs for a New World.”
Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”)
How did you get attached to this project?
I said, “I want do something really big, singing beautiful ‘I love you’ songs.” [Script writer Marsha Norman] said, “Great, let’s see what we can do to find that.” And we weren’t looking for this. It fell into Marsha’s lap. [Novelist] Robert James Waller’s agent called Marsha. She said, “I know exactly who to do this with!” And she called me.
Immediately, we set “Bridges of Madison County” up as a romance. That’s our piece. And to be able to write in the specific vernacular of these people, but to embody all of that theatricality and musicality of what we wanted to do, it’s been a thrill the whole time.
Were you writing for a specific audience?
We wanted very much to write a mature show, something for grown-ups to watch. And I think all of us are very conscious that sometimes if you want to do a big Broadway musical, it’s best to do something sort of juvenile — but we didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to write a grown-up piece. [It’s for] an audience that’s smart and sophisticated, an audience that really is willing to believe in the power that these two people have over each other. It’s a very important show to me. It’s very meaningful to me. And I hope the audience goes along on that ride with us.
Was it hard to take this little world and make it bigger for Broadway?
Defining the world through the characters, which is really what I do, has been a great exploration. Because there are three different worlds in the show: There’s her world, and there’s his world, and there’s the world in which they meet. And getting to use the characters to combine those worlds and how they interact within those worlds: That’s been a real pleasure. It’s a puzzle, but putting it together has been joyous.
When I have these kinds of instruments to write for Steven [Pasquale] and Kelli [O’Hara], and they open their mouths and it’s exactly what I want to hear, I can write anything. It’s a blessing,
Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”)
Tell us about your character.
I play Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer sent to Madison County to take pictures of the famous covered bridges. [That’s] where he meets [Kelli O’Hara’s] character, Francesca Johnson. … He’s a guy who served in the Korean War, seen some hard things, so maybe he’s not comfortable being around other people. [He] travels the world alone, taking pictures, living very much the life of a gypsy artist. And he finds, in Francesca, the first-ever feeling of true connection with another person, and it’s the single most powerful thing that ever happens to him.
How is this iteration different from the novel or movie?
Very wisely, Jason and Marsha decided to populate the story with characters from three different frames. We tell our story from present-day Iowa in 1965, and we also tell the story through Robert’s memory, so you learn about characters like Marian, his ex-wife. And we learn things through Francesca’s memory, so we travel to Italy and we learn about her big sister and we learn about her life as a child. So it’s really told on three different planes, and we’re able to integrate other essential characters. It felt a little bit more of a big, lush, full story — but at its heart and core, of course, is a two-character love story.
How is it working with Kelli?
She’s one of my oldest friends in New York. She’s a world-class actor and a world-class singer. To have an unlimited amount of confidence in your scene partner allows you to be really truly relaxed in your work, and I would work with her forever and ever if I could.
Kelli O’Hara (“A Light in the Piazza”)
Tell us about your character.
[Francesca Johnson] is an Italian immigrant; she grew up in Naples, Italy. World War II happened, destroyed everything she knew of her town. … She met an American soldier over there; he saved her and took her to America, to a tiny little farming community called Winterset, Iowa. She became his wife; she became the mother of two beautiful children, she became a farmwoman. She worked really hard for 18 years — and somewhere along the way something got squished a little bit. But she was OK, she was happy. It’s just that she didn’t know how squished she was until a man — a mystical situation — happened in her life. A connection that she’d never felt before happened. She, with all of her brains, realized that [the mystical situation] was a moment in time and made good choices after.
So you do think she makes good choices about her affair?
I think they were the choices that Kelli O’Hara would make. Some people might disagree.
Had you read the book?
I loved the book when I was a teenager. I thought it was very romantic and sad, and I cried. I believed in her choice in the moment that she was in, and I still do. I think it’s very important to realize that we’re all human, and that when those things happen it’s what you do with them [that matters]. In a way, I think it formed a better life for Francesca’s family, and for her children, and it made for a better person.
Has the creative team, then, done a good job conveying all of that onstage?
We, as actors, do an internal layering anyway. We find out what our backstory is, where we come from, who we are, where we want to go. What we’ve done is we’ve invited you to the party. We’ve just put it all in our story.
Were you already a fan of Jason Robert Brown?
Yes, but I think he has outdone himself on this one. He really wrote for the way I dream of singing, and I’ll feel forever in his debt.
Who is this show for?
The show is for people who live in small towns or don’t feel they can be who they want to be. I come from one of those places. People who think they have to live by a certain set of rules. It’s to come and see that everybody wants and everybody aches. You do with that what you will, but so that you don’t feel alone.
Isn’t that what the NYC experience is for out-of-towners, the people who come to see Broadway?
Absolutely. That’s what this is. They’re coming to see a different way of thinking, and I think that when they go back home they’ll feel differently about their own circumstances.